Clarion: Great British cycling at the grass roots


Cyclists from Bolton Clarion, 1897

Manchester & District CTC sent me an email the other day, with a link to their website for information about activities and details of the clubs in their area. CTC members are welcome on their club runs. I've never been on one but I might have seen them. Or were they the Lancashire Road Club, or Bolton Clarion?

CTC say they're the UK's national cyclists' organisation, but sport-based British Cycling claims to be the national governing body for cycling. Cycling England is an independent body attached to the Department for Transport "working to get more people cycling, more safely, more often," (although it seems this body is about to be culled). With a steady stream of cycling campaigns and initiatives from all three, the chaps pictured above would have a hard time making sense of modern cycling politics. We might be better served if there was a single supreme organisation for the UK, especially as the new Coalition Government pushes for 'local solutions' on the basis of divide and conquer.

Meanwhile, at cycling's grass roots where I live, Manchester & District CTC, Lancashire Road Club and Bolton Clarion organise actual bike rides every week. Probably other groups too, which I've never heard of. Manchester CTC's web link has Peak Audax in its URL, putting Audax amongst the groups at ground level so to speak. Cycling club runs are a tradition that goes back over 100 years.

Bolton Clarion was formed in 1896 as an offshoot of Bolton Socialist Club. Clarion itself was a socialist newspaper started a few years earlier in Manchester, which included a cycling column. The newspaper faded in popularity but by the 1930s Bolton Clarion CC was the biggest in the country. The National Clarion CC started up in Birmingham in 1895 to inspire working class people to enjoy the new freedom of cycling. It still exists, with some 650 members and 25 local groups in England, Scotland, and Wales, but none in Northern Ireland.


Bolton Clarion women, 1939

All this, of course, is leisure cycling – the sort which continues regardless of Cycling Towns, infrastructure, and the politics of cycling that goes on between government and the national bodies. Politics is alive and well at local level too. National Clarion Cycling Club 1895, formed in 2006, isn't the same as the other National Clarion but remains committed to Socialist principles. Bolton Wood Street Clarion, formed in 2004, is also Socialist and separate from the other Bolton Clarion, and organises walks and other trips as well as cycle rides.

The photos on this page are from the 'Bygone Times' page of Bolton Clarion's website. Gorgeous images, I think. It's not just the meetings of these grassroots clubs that keeps alive the 'old traditions' of British cycling, but their websites too. I see they have a European Champion: Fred Smith who won Gold in the Men's 70+ Pursuit at Manchester Velodrome in July.

I hope these Clarion clubs keep going and also that they continue to maintain their websites, otherwise these fragments of history will be lost. Bolton Clarion has an annual trophy in memory of two of its members killed in World War II: the Ward Gosling Trophy awarded for exceptional services to the Club. Herbert Ward and Tom Gosling were member cyclists and neighbours in Bolton. Herbert was rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber and was killed on his first mission in 1943. Tom was killed on HMS Repulse when it was sunk by the Japanese near Singapore in 1941.

Are club runs and solo leisure rides included as cycling journeys travelled in the national statistics I wonder? No-one has ever asked me (or anyone I know) how far or how often we ride our bikes. I accept that the mass utility cycling idea is probably important and something we should strive towards for a better society and all that, but more important still is the bicycle as an instrument of pleasure, and for social connections between individuals.

14 comments on “Clarion: Great British cycling at the grass roots”

  1. Hilary wrote:

    I couldn't agree more with your last comment Patrick. I ride my bike for the sheer joy of it, something that can't be measured in any statistics or promoted by any government body, however well meaning.
    When I was 14/15 I hung around for a while with Crewe Clarion but there was no one else my age and I gradually lost interest. I also have fond memories of the Clarion tea house at Roughlee which I visited on a few Sunday runs while living in Yorkshire in the early 80s. I assume it is still there. Although I've only read about it I am very drawn to the club life of the 40s and 50s, everyone seems so very individualist and isolated these days.
    I have a copy of the photo of the Clarion girls on a postcard which is in a frame in my kitchen. It has the caption 'We have nothing to lose but our chains!'

  2. Patrick wrote:

    Those old photos are gems. There's another one taken in Rivington where I pass through most days, but I decided two reproductions from their 'Bygone Times' page was enough.

    ... everyone seems so very individualist and isolated these days.

    That includes me, probably. I've always cycled on my own, except for the odd occasion with my sons or Mrs Taylor (and our tours but that's different). Sometimes I quite fancy joining up with a little group like Bolton Clarion but I'm nervous if I'd fit in or not. They'll have their group cultures built up over years of cameraderie – the older ones anyway, and I couldn't keep up with the younger ones. But I know what you mean about the 40s and 50s; very evocative it is.

  3. Chris wrote:

    Patrick wrote: I quite fancy joining up with a little group like Bolton Clarion but I'm nervous if I'd fit in or not. They'll have their group cultures built up over years of cameraderie – the older ones anyway, and I couldn't keep up with the younger ones.

    Just give it a go, Patrick. Although you may find the older ones aren't that easy to keep up with either!

  4. Garry Lee wrote:

    I've cycled with the same floating group for about 25 years or so. One of the main things we have in common (and this is very important) is a common mph that we enjoy. We are all athletically similar, though not identical. There is no point in an 18mph cyclist cycling with a 12 mph cyclist. It won't work. While we can cycle quite fast, we don't. If you always push yourself hard, you will quit! I've seen it time without number.
    We don't go for "runs" in Ireland. We go for "spins" or "rides". Rides, of course, have a secondary, ah hem, meaning as well. 😉

  5. Alan wrote:

    Like "taken for a ride"? Oh, you mean like "town bike".

    Cycling is also a social activity for me, although I have only ever once in my adult life ridden with others. It's about the people I meet on the way: cyclists, dog-walkers, and even some motorists like the woman the other day who turned right into the road I was cycling along, and continued driving on my side of the road, towards a rather terrified yours truly. Funny thing was, she was grinning broadly at me.

    Or perhaps it was a manic murderous grin.

  6. Geoff Gartrell wrote:

    Hi all Clarion riders
    I am now 76yrs on in life (widowed) and started my cycling with Bolton Clarion in the 1950's; they were a time trial club and the BLRC was just opening up. I with a few others Fred Smith, Brian Cockshot, Bob Smith come to mind ventured into road racing and organised a club run section to train for these events. One of the races I remember was on the Holcombe circuit; a mixed cat race over 50 hilly miles over Edgeworth moor etc. we won the team prize with Brian and Bob in the first two places and I think Fred in fourth; I was a lowly 19th but had done my bit to block and chase. I'm still riding; back after a 30 year break to become a not too unsuccessful runner; ran the Pike race many times. Now living in North Wales any one out there remembers me give me a shout

  7. Tony Skidmore wrote:

    I understand that The Clarion is a socialist cycling club, I'm both a cyclist and a socialist. Is it possible for me to join the club?

  8. Chris wrote:

    I see Matt Baker paid a visit to a Clarion tea room in last night's Countryfile programme (he also met a cyclist who had a dramatic fall from his mountain bike last year).

  9. Patrick wrote:

    Well spotted Chris! (I should have noticed)

  10. Geoff Gartrell wrote:

    Hello again. Still hoping some of the oldies out there remembers me or my brother Alan. I remember Tony Bowles coming to talk with us at the Velodrome a few years ago and was pleased to see Fred Smith's success on the track; he was always a resourceful rider.
    Good luck for your future to Bolton Clarion; I have them to thank for introducing me to a wonderful sport and pastime

  11. Bryan Cockshott wrote:

    Hello to Geoff Gartrell, a Bolton Clarion contemporary from the 50's, we must both be 80 by now!
    You mention being widowed, did you marry the lovely Mary McNulty who was besotted with you?
    Of course I remember your brother Alan and his wife Audrey, they made a lovely couple in their matching lederhosen outfits 😉
    I've seen Fred Smith's name mentioned in Masters results, he was the one with the spiky white hair.
    We had a very good social setup in those days and I too am grateful for the friends made and adventures enjoyed in those happy days.
    I live in Australia now and would love to hear from you or anyone else from that era, my email address is

  12. anthony bowles wrote:

    Hi Geoff and Bryan, Fred Smith came a cropper on his bike the week before the World Masters at Manchester this year, he was going well and looking to the team pursuit as his main event. Three vertebrae damaged in his neck and couple of cracked ribs and bruising, just out for an easy when it happened. Other than that he's ok, true clarion spirit.

  13. Jim wrote:

    The tearooms are still there and we of Bury CTC are due to visit again. The local Clarions, Bury and Bolton are very well supported, but are definitely more of a sporting nature than the like of us CTC guys and girls. We meet at the same place on a Sunday and it is easy to spot the difference.

Leave a comment

Add a Smiley Smiley »